Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

Neil deGrasse Tyson responds to this question from the Templeton Foundation:

It is kind of the standard answer from scientists, but Tyson does it well. I like that he gives his answer but also explains how he worked up to it.

From Agathos in the forum.

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  • http://www.worldsworstmoms Tammy@WorldsWorstMoms

    I wonder what it would be like to be this cool.

  • julie

    more intelligent than Randi and hawkins and Squakins insane rabid ramblings all they are trying to do it is to buy into the fame game, They just come across as intolerent bigots more so that those with other leanings How dare they destroy the beliefs of those who need a beleif system and I aint talking about the mad mullahs just ordinary people who need a beleif to help them get by.

    • TrickQuestion

      “How dare they bring people into the real world, where real things matter and real things exist and make them face up to how things are and deal with them”

    • Kodie

      “Insane rabid ramblings”? Have you listened to a theist talk? They need their insane rabid ramblings to get by though! They shouldn’t be disturbed by the smart people talking and intolerating them. A ‘No True Scotsman’ for good measure. An intolerant bigot against atheism is you, calling them not intelligent because they say things you don’t like to hear – not because you’re smarter, but because your emotions can’t handle it.

    • trj

      If your religious beliefs can be destroyed by someone putting forth a rational argument, then obviously those beliefs weren’t worth much to begin with. The one coming across as rambling and intolerant here is you.

    • FO

      Can you make an example of Dawkins or Hawking insane and rabid rambling?

  • lackinininsight

    random insane musings:
    - ya, basically that there is no colour “purpose” ( a.k.a. whatever data you get on the x-axis, you can’t extrapolate it onto the y)
    - nice cute drawings: sinister subterfuge? hidding the horror that clearly exists in my world but not apparently not in those with smiling faces on the internetz; i suppose there are drugs that can fix me
    - wishful thinking is not only where one sees a monstrous whale where there is only a fish, but also the other way around
    - pablum is not good for you
    - “seeing things as they are” – ah, chronically sane – if i share your illusions, does that make me enlightened?

  • peicurmudgeon

    I’ve heard people rail against Dawkins for being strident before, but this is the first time I’ve heard that criticism against Hawking.

  • Chico889

    He starts off by saying that “Anyone who expresses a more definitive response [than that "I don't know"] to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations.” This is perfectly logical and correct. He ends by saying that the case against the universe having a purpose is strong. But in making this case, he ignores evidence that it /might/ have a purpose. That evidence (of course, evidence, not proof) lies in the so-called Goldilocks effect—the apparent improbability that an exploding singularity will produce consciousness. When highly improbable things happen, it is quite rational to hypothesise (not know) that the reason might be because of a purposer, rather than because of blind chance. The fact that this consciousness arises in a way that might be construed as systematic and progressive, again suggest to a possible driving force or purpose or attrtactor to make it so.

    Bottom line: any fair-minded non-ideological rational observer would find it difficult to make a judgment call on whether or not the universe has a purpose. The fact is, we just don’t know and there are reasonable arguments either way.

    • Monimonika

      Now let’s add to your intelligent design argument pesky questions like:

      Who or what is the purposer/designer? Given the “evidence” of purpose, what can be extrapolated about the supposed purposer other than it designed/set in motion/created/whatever the “evidence”? What kind of evidence would falsify the existence of this purposer if we were to search for it? How (and when) did the purposer do what it supposedly did? Can you explain a possible mechanism/process by which a purposer created consciousness (including a rough timeline pointing out what organisms may have had consciousness inserted into them)? What happened to the purposer? Is the purposer still active?

      Oh, and don’t forget to clearly define what you mean by “consciousness” (do animals have consciousness? bacteria? are there organisms that do not have consciousness? are there non-organisms that have consciousness?).

      • Chico889

        None of your questions attack my central point: that there is evidence for, and evidence against, and the presenter is too idelogically bound to even consider the evidence for. It is unscientific to try to sneak in probabilistic arguments against, without considering probabilistic arguments for. That is my central point. Your questions just deflect from that point.

        I hasten to add that intelligent design is not a scientific position, but neither is atheism. Neither belong in a science curriculum. Both are ideologically rather than scientifically grounded. The only unassailable scientific position is “agnosticism”.

        • Kodie

          Evolution is science like Intelligent Design is not science. You are leaping over that part, you say “atheism doesn’t belong in science class.” No, we do not discuss fairy stories in science, so there is no use for atheism to be there. You are studying the physical world, study it. That is not saying there is a god or there is no god. So, straw man? Agnosticism toward a god is an ideological position and also does not belong in science class. It is not unassailable, how many rocks do you have to look under, how many times call out with no answer, how many claims by theists aren’t true, how many arguments they make are fallacious, and you still think there may be a god – then what kind of god is left that is possible? Without proof, you are inventing a story, like all the others’ stories. How even a chance is there, to you, that there is a god? Based on evidence, too small to worry about. What kind of god would not be blatantly obvious, let people make up junk about him, and have literally no effect on people’s lives?

        • Theory_of_I


          You said:
          “…there is evidence for” and accused vorjack of ignoring “…considering probabilistic arguments for.” a purpose.

          If, as it seems, you are insinuating that the universe was poofed into being, and that the purpose of the universe is to provide life sustaining conditions, life and consciousness as determined by some “purposer”, AKA god, one could assume you are alluding to all of this happening in honor of your god thingy’s favorite little critters, namely us humans.

          That is incredibly, unbelievably, insufferably arrogant, of course, but it is what all of god’s little critters are taught…another preposterous lie from the industry of religion (IOR).

          I would suggest you think again. Using that same imaginative meandering of thought, the only reasonable conclusion is that the trillions of microbes for which you (We) serve as an involuntary host and without which you (none of us) could survive, are your god thingy’s truely chosen life forms in the universe. (Uh, oh! What a revoltin’ developement that is!)

          You say:
          >”…intelligent design is not a scientific position, but neither is atheism.”

          Atheism is nothing more than a broadly based consensus among rationally minded people that:

          1) Due to the utter lack of evidence, belief in the existance a supernatural deity is delusional.

          2) When that belief is organized and manipulated by means of the engine of the industry of religion, it does far more harm to humanity than good.

          That’s about it.

          Creationism (ID), on the other hand, is but one more fraudulent attempt by the industry of religion to manipulate and control it’s adherants.

          • Theory_of_I

            That shudda said …you(we) could not survive.

    • trj

      Feel free to present the math or physics or biology or whatever which is actually showing that it is improbable for consciousness to arise somewhere in the universe. Additionally, feel free to explicate how “consciousness arises in a way that might be construed as systematic and progressive”, other than by resorting to the “it looks that way to me” argument.

      Also, you might want to look up the anthropic principle.

      • Chico889

        Probability of consciousness /estimated/ by counting number of places where we know it exists (1 = earth) divided by number of places where we know it does not (several billion). That’s a very small number.

        Consciousness is associated with complexity in arrangement of matter. The complexity of matter has progressively increased from undifferentiated primitive particles at the time of the big bang to increasingly complex forms, resulting in high density of complex molecules. This drift, from simple to complex over the millenia certainly seems progressive (but not a proof of progressive).

        Anthropic princple: self-referential —adds nothing to the argument.

        • trj

          1) So far we’ve discovered only about a thousand exo-planets, and only because they’re extremely large and/or extremely close to their sun. An early estimate says there are something like 160 billion Earth-mass planets in our galaxy alone – and we know nothing about the existence of life, conscious or not, on any of these planets. So your assessment is meaningless since you don’t have anything close to enough information to make it.

          2) Complexity exists everywhere. In fact, the more random a process or system is, the more complex it is. So clearly complexity is not a very good measure of design. As for the arrangement of complexity into biological lifeforms, evolution (which is not random) explains this quite adequately.

          3) The anthropic principle is no more self-referential than the argument from design.

          • Chico889

            1) You are interpreting data according to your own biases. I do not argue that there is no consciousness elsewhere. I argue that if it exists, it is rare. Your own data can be construed as supporting that. Of itself, rarity does not prove nor disprove purpose. But it /might/ point to purpose. The video clip fails to acknowledge that.

            2a) Complexity, in the form of complex molecules that issue in consciousness self-evidently does not exist everywhere. It is rare. It is a local violation of the 2nd law of thermodynamics which, of course, continues to function globally. Large numbers of random events and random conditions may or may not eventually produce complexity. It is an a posteriori assumption that conditions will inevitably produce consciousness. After all, an infinite variety of even numbers does not produce an odd number. The anology limps, I know, but it sufficiently illustrates the point.

            2b) Evolution explains what happened and how it happened. It does not explain why it happened—i.e. it neither affirms nor denies a purposer.

            3) The anthropic principle: difficult to talk about this unless we know what variant is at issue. Nevertheless, I know of no variant that strengthens the atheist argument any more than that it strengthens the theist/deist argument. It seems to me entirely orthogonal to both positions.

            Bottom line: To an unbiased observer, science, evolution, weak or strong anthropic principles, multiverses, etc argue neither for nor against the universe having a purpose. They address “what” and “how” questions, and not “why” questions. The universe may indeed be purposeless. But it may have a purpose. The opener of the video clip was spot on: the only honest position, taking science as your starting point, is “We don’t know”. You can marshal all the findings of science to try to support an atheist ideology and you will impress only those already committed to atheism. You can do the same to support theism/deism and the raw facts will fit that hypothesis equally well.

            The fact is that ultimately atheism, like theism/deism, is a faith-based position: you look at everything around you in the light of the sum of your experiences, and you exercise a judgment call that you believe best fits the facts. Different people will judge differently, and there is no definitive intellectually superior position. That is what Hitchkins atheists (but not other more serious, less doctrinare atheists) hate to admit. They are so obsessed with putting down fundamentalist Christians—who are, after all, intellectual midgets—that they fall into their own kind of non-reflective atheist fundamentalism.

            I expect this to launch an avalanche of objections and abuse. I’m not sure I will have the time to respond. All these matters have been argued ad nauseam on other websites.

            • Theory_of_I

              >”Evolution explains what happened and how it happened. It does not explain why it happened—i.e. it neither affirms nor denies a purposer.”

              You obviously are defending the “purposer” concept, but like every appologist, you can only use the complaint that evolutionary science fails to address your assertion that there is a “why”. Which, in terms of observed reality, implies/necessitates a supernatural “purposer”. You don’t (can’t) factually explain what that is, or WHY it is, or what could have created it.

              Ultimately, when you make the claim (as you must) that “It’s turtles all the way down” you will insist that your imagination has equal standing with real facts.

              Intellectual midgets indeed…clearly your dues are fully paid.

            • Kodie

              Purpose is a human measurement. It makes you feel better, but it’s just an illusion. Or a delusion. If you’re going to try to extrapolate some kind of god out of whatever you want to read into things that aren’t really there, you ought to have a lot better evidence before you call atheism “unassailable” or inferior to agnosticism. Atheism only exists as a position in reaction to theism, that is, the “whatever I feel like saying about god is true”. None of that has any logical or scientific merit, it is hearsay and poetic interpretation, not science. You seem to be giving equal weight to fiction and not enough intelligence to sort through any of it.

            • Kodie

              You know what I think about purpose? I think the universe is extraneous if human life is the purpose. Extraneous bullshit nobody’s ever going to need. You know what else? Humans start walking around, and they look at this dump and say: not good enough. It’s very spacious but the amenities are for crap. All I can do is huddle under a tree while it rains and hope I can grab some turtle walking by. I may not get there in my life. But some day, we’re going to be eating pizza in a hut.

              You know what would make this place a home for us? Heat. All year round heat. And a way to cut the grass and chop down some of these fucking trees. Dresser drawers. Something other than a rock to wash my clothes, you know, something I can walk away while it washes them for me. And you just know I’m going to die of something stupid. Let’s figure out what’s causing that and make it stop, and orange cones. What are all these lines and squiggles? I don’t know what it means. Do you know what it means? I’d like to go over there – I’d like to bring my things to another place in a…. some sort of floating container. Not a raft, more like a bowlllll. Boat? That’s what it is. I want to be able to direct the thing and not just be floating around far from the bank. Come to think of it, banks are a great idea. We can hold our money securely in one and take it out when we need it, because fuck socialism. I’m not working for free here.

            • trj

              Personally, I have no problem admitting atheism is a judgement call, and I fail to see the virtue of an agnostic view which assigns equal weight to all positions. If I have a natural explanation on one hand which, you seem to suggest, has the same explanatory power as a supernatural one, I see no reason to favor the supernatural one and thus introduce a whole layer of extraneous complications. Not that I see the evidence for a universal purpose being anywhere near compelling, though.

              People arguing for a universal purpose can’t agree what that purpose is, who is behind it, what its consequences are, the motives behind it – their arguments consist of assertions springing from our ever prevalent tendency to anthropomorphize and the need we feel for our existence to be special somehow. We can’t know whether the universe has a purpose, but I do find it less arrogant to state that I see no need (or evidence) for this, than to assume based on mere assertions that we are players on some cosmic stage.

              You are of course free to think otherwise, and you are absolutely correct that we can’t rule out a universal purpose. But you argue this from the appearance of design which is really not very difficult to explain via science. And anyway, as you yourself mention, rarity or complexity don’t really support the question of purpose one way or the other (had we been surrounded by abundant extra-terrestial life the question would still be just as valid).

    • 1984

      “But in making this case, he ignores evidence that it /might/ have a purpose. That evidence (of course, evidence, not proof) lies in the so-called Goldilocks effect”
      This argument has often been discussed and I believe even Tyson has touched on it, by stating that most of the universe is not suitable for life. To that we could of course add that most life has gone extinct and if a study is correct then the human species went almost extinct at one point. As Hitchens often asked: Some design huh? We could go further of course, and look at the design of mankind. What kind of intelligent source makes his perfectly designed creature so filled with genetic diseases? Some die by simply eating a nut. Anyone can figure out how to improve these things.

  • Troutbane

    Dont forget that pot holes and the puddles in them must have been purposefully designed to hold the water puddle they hold as the puddle would not exist otherwise without such a perfect scenario.

    Behold the proof of the mighty and omnipotent Creator!

    BTW, there is no need of evidence against, there must be only evidence for, for which theists have failed eons to provide one iota of observable, testable, and repeatable evidence. (Hint, rationalizations and emotional plees are not enough) You can no more prove a creator does not exist then prove bigfoot, aliens, ghosts, angels, or Santa Claus. do not exist

  • Chico889

    Oops — looks like I disturbed a nest of Dawkinsonian dogmatists. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the mere mention of possible purpose in the universe elicits instant howls of indigination. All the old prejudices come rolling out. “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

    The only remark above that I can agree with is by Kodi: “Agnosticism toward a god is an ideological position and also does not belong in science class. ” Yes. Conceded. Science classes should only deal with the empirical, observable, provable, etc. Creationism, ID, Atheism, Agnosticism do not belong in a natural science class. These are all themes which might possibly be discussed in a social science class dealing with human ideological belief systems.

    The rest of the remarks repeat tired old Hitchkens dogmas and mythologies (such as “no evidence”, “no need of evidence against”, Santa Clause, etc) and/or they hysterically ascribe to me things that I did not say and/or attack positions I have not taken. The responses are as fundamentalist as those I encounter from the Christian right. I fear that to respond to them in any detail would be just as futile as trying to convince a fundamentalist Christian that Adam and Eve might possibly be mythical. Perhaps, like Christian fundamentalists, atheist fundamentalists should be left to in their complacent self-assured belief that their position is unassailable.

    • Kodie

      Stop talking out your ass and try to say that again with the hole in your face.

    • Troutbane

      Wow, your inability to refute is amazing. Bravo.

      BTW, in what science class has a teacher ever “taught” atheism?

    • TrickQuestion

      “I don’t have to offer any real proof, or actual arguments and will instead be a dismissive assbutt”